The sounds of freshly sharpened skates gliding across the crisp ice, the players knocking each other into the boards and the puck ringing off the goal post are familiar sounds of a hockey game. While the noise adds to the experience for many, it can do even more — it can help fans who are visually impaired identify what’s going on.
Actuarial science sophomore Matthew Miller attends the Spartan ice hockey games in his green and white jersey, sitting on the glass while he takes in the game by listening, with a bit of help of his binoculars to look for the puck. He was born with a visual impairment.
“Part of hockey that I do like is that I find it a lot easier for me to see than other sports because of the lighting,” Matthew said. “It’s usually very well lit and usually a lot closer than any at other sports, and there are a lot of sounds in the game: the puck hitting sticks, the puck hitting the boards.”
Becoming a hockey fan
After he attended a middle school for blind and visually impaired students, one of Matthew's teachers introduced him to the sport. From there, he began to follow his favorite NHL team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
When the NHL went into a lockout at the beginning of the 2012 season, Matthew began to follow along with college hockey and even high school hockey to keep his interest in the sport going. From there, his passion for the sport began to grow.
“Just from there it became more and more into more of hockey, starting branching out from the Blackhawks, especially during the lockout,” Matthew said. “A lot of high school hockey and college hockey, so I started to realize I like that specifically and it wasn’t just one team I liked. I liked the sport in general.”
One of his favorite former Spartan hockey players is goaltender Ryan Miller, who currently plays for the Anaheim Ducks, because he represented Team USA in past years. He never paid close attention to who played for the Spartans before he came to MSU.
After he arrived on campus, Matthew attended multiple Spartan hockey games and said he appreciated the student section and the fan base that still continues to cheer on the team after a struggling season.
“I’m realizing what I have been expecting all along which was a great, loud, engaged fan base and I love that sense of hockey community,” Matthew said. “Especially because it’s not necessarily everybody follows so you know the people who are there and really have a passion for it.”
When he was looking at colleges, Matthew never really considered MSU as his first choice, but after he received an academic scholarship and toured campus, he changed his mind.
Matthew doesn't have any MSU alumni in his family, but his mother Laura Miller, realized after she took a tour of the university why he wanted to go there.
“I just thought it would be a great fit for him because of the fact that they do have a hockey program and he can enjoy that while he was studying,” Laura said. “I think that was really important to him.”
In their family, Matthew and his younger brother, Luke Miller, are the only two who are visually impaired.
“Matthew is someone I have shared experiences with, someone who has really set a good example for me and my situation,” Luke said in an email. “He understands how we navigate the world in a way other people cannot fully understand.”
Laura said notices this brings her son together. She said they can help each other in way that she and her husband cannot understand.
“It’s actually easier for us,” Laura said. “They both are, I think, because they understand each other like no one else. Even though we can’t see through their eyes and understand what they deal with on a daily basis, they have each other. They understand each other and they way they have to navigate things.”
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The program started three years ago, before Matthew could fully get involved, but he still tries to squeeze in games and help coach during breaks throughout the school year.
“At home, the Chicago Blackhawks sponsor a blind hockey team,” Matthew said. “Unfortunately, I was right about to leave and it got started, so I join them when I go home.”
The program came about as a part of the USA Hockey's campaign "Hockey is for Everyone," which allows any individuals to participate in the sport.
Three and a half years ago, a group got together to build a team for blind and visually impaired players after they found similar programs in Canada and some spread around in the United States. This is the first program of its kind that has the support from an NHL team.
“We’re building the foundation here,” hockey director and coach of the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey Team Michael Svac said. “There was no manual. There’s no 'this is how you do it.' The combination of how do you teach something if they can’t see it? What happens is we say blind hockey, it’s really those with visual impairments. It’s just USA Hockey keeps it very simple.”
The divisions break up between four levels based on their visual impairments with B1, B2, B3 and B4. The blind hockey program only handles divisions from B1 to B3. Those in B1 are completely blind, and B2 and B3 who have different conditions based on their visual impairments.
The program splits the players based on their skill levels and whether they have played the game before. Matthew competes not only as a player, but also helps out as a coach.
“Matthew is an outstanding individual,” Svac said. “He played for us for almost about several months before the season ended and then he went off to college. He comes back and we made him a player coach, recognizing that he has the opportunity to come back and suit up and play so we can keep him registered for competitive play.”
Forwards in blind hockey usually have stronger vision compared to their defense, but Matthew can go in between both of those positions. When playing in smaller scrimmage games, he generally plays as a forward, but also has the skill level and knowledge to play on the blue line.
Svac described Matthew as the role model of what their program is about, and that’s having fun and enjoying the game they play.
“We think highly of him,” Svac said. “He is a great individual, a great leader and he has so much passion. Ut’s killing him to be at school because he wants to be here every weekend. Anytime he can come home and his mom and father are outstanding supporters. They have made some sacrifices. … Great family nucleus, great leader. Matthew is what it’s all about.”
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